“I teach them not to piss on their hands.”

That’s one of the memorable lines from the book, Educated, which I just finished reading.

Here’s a brief summary of the book from the author’s (Tara Westover) website:

Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag.” In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.
            Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when Tara’s older brother became violent.
            Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

The book is a memoir of Tara’s life, and as such, offers her perspective on her experiences growing up as a fundamentalist Mormon. Here is a brief bio, also from her website:

Born in Idaho to a father opposed to public education, she never attended school. She spent her days working in her father’s junkyard or stewing herbs for her mother, a self-taught herbalist and midwife. She was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. After that first encounter with education, she pursued learning for a decade, graduating magna cum laude from Brigham Young University in 2008 and subsequently winning a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She earned an MPhil from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009, and in 2010 was a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge, where she was awarded a PhD in history in 2014.

The book has been highly praised, as evidenced by the following accolades found at Amazon:

  • #1 New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Boston Globe bestseller • named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review • one of President Barack Obama’s favorite books of the year • Bill Gates’s holiday reading list • finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard prize for best first book • longlisted for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence
  • named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post • O: The Oprah Magazine • Time • NPR • Good Morning America • San Francisco Chronicle • The Guardian • The Economist • Financial Times • Newsday • New York Post • theSkimm • Refinery29 • Bloomberg • Self • Real Simple • Town & Country • Bustle • Paste • Publishers Weekly • Library Journal • LibraryReads • BookRiot • Pamela Paul, KQED • New York Public Library

But the book is not without its detractors, many of whom question the accuracy of Westover’s recollection of events. Here is a review supposedly written by her brother Tyler that offers a family member’s perspective on the book (the review is no longer available on Amazon). However, I think it is important to remember that this is a memoir, so it reflects Tara’s perception of the events of her life, and Tara is clear throughout the book stating that this is the case.

I found the book to be fascinating, since it exposed me to a world I knew nothing about, and I found Tara’s story to be quite motivational.

The quote in the blog title comes from an experience Tara had when she was about 10 years old, and visiting her grandmother (in town). Tara used the bathroom, and upon exiting, her Grandmother asked her if she had washed her hands. Tara replied that she had not, and that in fact, she did not even have soap in her bathroom at home.

When Tara’s dad came by to pick her up later that day, the grandmother asked him, “Don’t you teach your children to wash after they use the toilet?”

To which Tara’s dad replied, “I teach them not to piss on their hands.”

There were a couple of other passages that stuck with me:

  • When Tara’s older brother Tyler announced that he was going to college, Tara asked, “What’s college?“, to which her dad replied: “College is extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around.
  • here’s a passage where Tara reflects on her early education, again when she was about ten years old. After Tyler left for college, Tara would study religion by reading the Book of Mormon, the Old and New Testaments, and all other related material she could get her hands on. She took notes and wrote short essays to help herself understand the material. Here’s what she had to say about this process: “In retrospect, I see that this was my education, the one that would matter: the hours I spent sitting at a borrowed desk, struggling to parse narrow strands of Mormon doctrine in mimicry of a brother who’d deserted me. The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.
  • At one point in the story, the mayor issued an ordinance that limited dog ownership to two dogs per family, in response to a dog that had bitten a boy, even though the dog was a stray. Tara’s dad offered his opinion on the ordinance: “These genius socialists. They’d drown staring up at the rain if you didn’t build a roof over them.”

So I’d give the book five stars for being an informative and inspirational look at one woman’s ability to succeed despite some unique difficulties early in life. I think it is a must read for educators and students alike.

*image from The New Yorker

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